By Susan Davis Gryder 2014-08-25 10:58:25
School Nutrition embarks on a quest in search of a healthier chip. Bite-sized, crunchy nuggets of salty, fried potatoes. Really, is there a better accompaniment for sandwiches, onion dip-delivery vehicle or simple finger-lickin’ handful? (I’m already getting cravings just writing about them!) Potato chips are a quintessentially American snack, one that many of us consume with great enthusiasm, eating an average of six pounds per person each year. It’s a $7 billion market, and together—potato chips along with corn/tortilla chips—top the list in U.S. sales dollars spent on snacks. While a treat that so many adore, traditional chips have an indisputably poor nutrition profile. Respected wellness advocates like the American Academy of Family Physicians or the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics assert that “all foods can fit in a healthy diet,” but it can be a mighty challenge for most snackers to maintain moderation once the package has been opened. With a growing societal focus on reducing U.S. obesity trends, it’s not a surprise that some healthier chip variations have begun nudging their way onto retail shelves. What is surprising is how many of these products have gained mainstream acceptance! They’re not only available in health food stores, but in many supermarket and convenience store chains, as well. Let’s take a look at the hows and whys of this evolution. A Culture of Chips Many food historians trace the origin of today’s potato chips to the 1850s invention of “Saratoga chips” at Moon’s Lake House, a resort in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Legend has it that the resort’s chef created chips in a fit of pique, after a wealthy and hard-to-please diner complained that the fried potatoes were too thick, too soggy and not salty enough. The chef sliced potatoes as thin as he could, fried them to a crisp and doused them with salt—and the potato chip was born! But other stories credit the chef’s sister, who accidentally let a slice of potato slip into the oil she was using to fry donuts, inadvertently creating the first potato chip. And some cite the appearance of potato chip recipes in cookbooks published as early as 1824. Regardless, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that chips had progressed from a home or restaurant recipe to becoming processed in volume (and with some shelf stability). Two manufacturers in Ohio and Massachusetts take credit for bringing potato chips to retail back in 1908-10, selling them in tins, barrels and bins, with portions scooped into smaller wax-paper bags. Some Internet sources assert that a salesman named Henry Lay spread the popularity of the snack throughout the south. But according to Frito-Lay owner PepsiCo, Inc., it was Herman Lay who, in 1932, bought a Nashville-based potato chip company and turned it into an international snack food empire. One thing not in dispute about the origin of the potato chip is its decidedly American provenance. Corn chips are likewise a North American invention. Fritos (meaning “little fried things”) were born during the Great Depression, reportedly inspired by a Mexican vendor who fried small amounts of cornmeal in oil. A Los Angeles tortilla manufacturer is said to have created their cousin, the triangle-shaped tortilla chip, as a way to make use of misshapen tortillas occasionally produced on the factory line. Today, there are hundreds of potato and corn chip snacks on the market. Many of the most well-known are from mega-manufacturers like Frito-Lay (which makes not only brand leaders Lay’s® and Fritos®, but also Doritos®, Tostitos®, Munchos®, Ruffles® and more). But increasingly, regional and independent players like Wise and Utz are making distribution inroads to broad swaths of the country. And niche products, such as gourmet chips in flavors like rosemary, balsamic or red wine vinegar, also are gaining market share. Plus, a bevy of new healthier-profile options seem to come on the market every year. The Lighter Side of Snacking It’s with good reason that “healthier” chip-type snacks are gaining more acceptance. After all, potato chips and their corn-chip cousins usually are fried, boasting high levels of fat and salt. In fact, a 1-oz. single serving of “regular” potato chips (estimated at 20 individual chips) typically has about 150 calories, 10 grams of fat and 95 milligrams of sodium. Of course, there are many other ways to get the crunch you crave, from pretzels to carrot sticks. But what if you have a hankering for real potato chips alongside your club sandwich? Or what if only corn chips will make that salsa sing? It’s tough to give up a food that so many people associate with comfort, tradition and casual eating. Food companies—and school nutrition professionals—know that their customers demand options—and they recognize that some of those options should feature an improved nutritional profile. It’s a particularly critical challenge to capture the attention and acceptance of kid customers, who form loyalties to certain foods—and brands—early on. Snack food manufacturers have a vested interest in creating mom-approved foods that will appeal to children; similarly, parents know that kids who accept healthier snacks early on are more likely to continue to make better dietary choices as they grow to adulthood. That’s why so many nutrition education initiatives focus on introducing youngsters to whole grains and an array of fruits and vegetables. But since processed foods are likely to remain a staple for many families, there’s an opportunity for manufacturers to do their part in shifting our food culture to an embrace of healthier options. On your next trip to the supermarket, pay attention in the snack aisle. Look around: You’re likely to see many more options on the shelves in this area. The increased availability of options with healthier profiles in the places where most consumers shop is an important indicator of their growing acceptance. Look closer: Not only are many of these products shelved alongside the “regular” chips varieties—and not relegated to a special “health foods” section of the store—they are side by side with their traditional counterparts, rather than high out of reach and out of the average consumer sight line. Retail marketers know that shelf position is a huge factor in purchase decisions—when something is easy to see and buy, more people will see and buy it. Another sign of a cultural shift is the fact that these products are assigned such valuable retail “real estate.” It’s not based on the whim of the stock boy—grocers simply don’t stock the “good” shelves with products that don’t sell. A Chip by Any Other Name… So what constitutes a “healthier” potato chip? One approach is changing to a lower-fat method of cooking, such as baking. As just one example, Baked Lay’s have 8 grams of fat less than the brand’s “regular” variety. Kettle Brand also offers a line of baked chips boasting 65% less fat and featuring trendy flavors like Aged White Cheddar and Sea Salt and Vinegar. For those who prefer the taste and mouth-feel of fried chips, some manufacturers are using healthier oils that are lower in saturated fats. These include boutique brand Jackson’s Honest Chips, which are fried in coconut oil, and Good Health chips, fried in avocado oil. National brand Kettle has its own version, using olive oil, called Real Sliced Potatoes. Some companies don’t fry or bake their chips at all! San Francisco-based Popchips, now among the top 10 chip brands worldwide, makes its snacks from potato starch, not whole potatoes, and processes them at a high pressure and temperature, a technique similar to the manufacture of rice cakes. Popchips ups the ante further, leaving out artificial colors, flavors and preservatives and using no hydrogenated oils or MSG. Some companies have sought to improve the nutritional profile of their potato chips by reducing sodium levels. Others promote “natural” versions that may be less processed or include fewer artificial ingredients. Snack giant Frito-Lay has embarked on an ambitious plan to reduce ingredients like MSG and artificial coloring agents by 50%. The resulting reformulations are labeled “All Natural,” although it’s important to note that the fat and calorie content of these varieties tends to remain unchanged. Frito-Lay also has introduced its new “Simply” line, which strips the ingredients list to three items: potatoes, expeller-pressed sunflower oil and sea salt. The corn/tortilla chip also is undergoing a transformation, with baked and reduced-fat versions of Tostitos and Doritos available in almost every grocery store. Some manufacturers choose simply to emphasize the inherent benefits of tortilla chips made with whole grains: higher fiber, more calcium, iron and niacin. Boutique brands like Laurel Hill and Food Should Taste Good (now a part of General Mills) produce multi-grain chips that are gluten-free and are made from whole-grain corn, along with such ingredients as brown rice, quinoa, sunflower and flax. Another popular option for corn-lovers are Sunchips, also a Frito-Lay brand, which starts with whole corn, adds other whole grains for a total of 18 grams of fiber and offers slightly lower fat and comparatively low sodium levels; all-natural versions are also available. New Ingredients, Better Health? Consumers looking for new and healthier tastes without sacrificing the crunch of chips also have choices that take advantage of the nutritional benefits of nontraditional ingredients. Not all chips have to start with potatoes or corn! Consider the following examples: • Humbles™ baked hummus chips, from Good Health Natural Foods, have 60% less fat than regular potato chips, with the added bonus of more protein. Varieties range from Roasted Red Pepper to Sesame Garlic. • The eponymous Beanitos™ are made with beans and brown rice, featuring more protein and less sodium and fat for a calorie count similar to potato chips. They come in chip and puff styles, in a variety of flavors, from Hot Chili Lime to Better Cheddar. • Terra Chips offers a line of “exotic” chips that features a blend of unusual vegetables (including taro, yucca and parsnip) and flavors (Thai Basil Curry and Zesty Tomatoes). A sweet potato variety benefits from high levels of antioxidants and significantly lower sodium than conventional potato chips. • Baked Lentil Chips from the Mediterranean Snack Good Company are very high in fiber and low in fat. • Stacy’s Pita Chips and Pita Crisps, made with real pita bread, feature about half the fat of conventional potato chips, although they contain considerably more sodium. Flavors range from Italian Harvest® and Garden Veggie Medley® to Perfectly Thymed® and C’est La Cheese®. Many more crunchy and creative chip options can be found on the shelves of natural food and gourmet stores. But keep in mind that even the healthiest-seeming chip—a product packed with whole grains and containing all sorts of nutritious-sounding ingredients—can contain high amounts of fat and sodium. Always remember to read the Nutrition Facts Label! Chipping Away at the Snack Food Market Whether options are truly or just marketed as such, there’s no denying that the chips segment of the snack market is undergoing radical diversification. What’s the bottom line? It may depend on the product. According to the Snack Food Association’s 2013 State-of-the-Industry Report, sales of baked chip options are on the decline; sales of Baked Lay’s alone have dropped by almost 13%. But it could be that the consumer-driven rise in the sheer number of options has diluted sales of individual products or sub-segments. Kelly Hammersley, senior consumer insights advocate for General Mills, points out that overall, healthier salty snack options currently drive 31% of the growth in the salty snack category, with options like popcorn, puffs, pretzels and veggie products playing major roles. A significant factor in the growth of healthy snacks will be whether we see increased availability in convenience stores. Convenience stores are the fastest-growing retail segment of the snack market, with sales growth of 24% over the past five years, according to Prepared Foods Network. That’s double the growth of sales in supermarkets and other locations. Manufacturers will keep an eye on market growth as snack products with healthier nutrition profiles make inroads in the school segment. While many parents may bring home the less-nutritious favorites they’ve enjoyed since their youth, if the next generation starts clamoring for the multigrain or lower-fat options they are seeing in school vending machines, stores and a la carte lines, our food culture may take another significant shift The Future of the Chip Manufacturers will continue to develop new technologies that make it possible to satisfy consumers’ cravings for salty snacks and their desire for healthier options. In the potato chip realm, food scientists are experimenting with ways to use less oil, without sacrificing that satisfying, slightly greasy crunch of a true potato chip. We may soon see such an alternative on grocery store shelves, thanks to a newly patented Frito-Lay technique, not yet in commercial production, which uses low-pressure frying to reduce the amount of oil absorbed by the potato chips. Consumers also may accept lower-sodium or -fat versions of their favorites, if they continue to follow the overall snack food trend toward stronger, spicier and more exotic flavors. Kettle Brand is one company at the forefront of this flavor trend, offering options like Sriracha, Spicy Thai and Cheddar Beer. General Mills’ Hammersley says that healthier versions may increase in popularity if manufacturers stay current in meeting consumer demand for bold flavors. “We are seeing a growing trend toward bold snacks with spicy flavors,” she explains. “There are a number of baked versions of chips and other healthier salty snacks in popular flavors such as taco, pepperoni pizza and salsa.” Whether you love tortilla chips with adventurous, spicy flavors or prefer the plain potato chip in all its salty, crunchy glory, you have a wide variety of healthier options available in the snack aisle the next time you make the weekly supermarket trip. Why not experiment with something baked, whole-grain or low-sodium for a new, healthier twist on an old friend? And don’t forget the onion dip—made with lowfat sour cream, of course! Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer in Silver Spring, Md. Illustration by juanmagarcia, photography by istockphoto.com. Foreign Flavors Hot Chili Lime? Cheddar Beer? Sesame Garlic? There are many new and unusual flavorings for chips and similar snack products sold in the United States. These may seem a little wild, but they have nothing on chips available around the world. Take a look at a list of some of the unfamiliar offerings—from many familiar manufacturers— that you might encounter as you traverse the globe. Would you be willing to try any of these? • Magic Masala and Mint Mischief Lay’s in India • Hot Chili Squid Lay’s in Thailand • Haggis and Black Pepper Mackie’s Potato Crisps in Scotland • Pepsi-flavored Lay’s in China • Builders Breakfast (flavored like eggs and bacon) Walker’s potato chips in the United Kingdom • Honey-glazed Ham Smith’s potato chips in Australia • Seaweed Pringles, found all over Asia • Teriyaki Mayonnaise Doritos in Japan • Fries and Gravy Lay’s in Canada
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